CD Review of Time the Conqueror by Jackson Browne
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Inside Recordings
Jackson Browne:
Time the Conqueror

Reviewed by Jeff Giles


mpotency’s a bitch. We hear about it all the time from the various shysters and members of Big Pharma that are forever clogging up late-night TV, the back pages of our magazines, and our e-mail inboxes with so-called solutions to the problem – the problem of sexual impotency, anyway. But for an ever-expanding group of rock & roll musicians, it’s the onset of commercial impotency that really hits home, and nobody’s offering those poor bastards any pumps or pills to fix what ails them.

The men of Jackson Browne’s generation first started to feel commercial impotency’s sting in the mid-to-late ‘90s, and it’s only gotten worse over the last decade. Every aging rocker deals with his increasingly flaccid record sales differently; Rod Stewart, for instance, strapped on a tuxedo and tricked our grandparents into purchasing his albums, while James Taylor turned to Starbucks for a little extra marketing muscle. Jackson Browne, meanwhile, was one of the first of the classic FM mainstays to greet the termination of his long-term record contract (he was on the Elektra roster for 30 years) with a shrug, a raised finger, and his own label.

Since hanging up his Inside Recordings shingle in 2005, Browne has kept a fairly low profile, issuing a pair of live acoustic recordings (the smartly titled Solo Acoustic Vol. 1 and Vol. 2) to pad the bottom line a bit before issuing a true follow-up to 2002’s The Naked Ride Home. Taking long layoffs between studio albums is nothing new for Browne – since 1976’s The Pretender, he’s never taken less than three years between collections of new material – but during his heyday, the protracted wait helped ramp up anticipation for the next batch of catchy, beautifully insightful songs. For the last 15 years, on the other hand, all the time off has just helped to obscure the fact that Jackson Browne no longer has anything new to say.

What this means, when you get right down to it, is that Time the Conqueror is more or less the same album Browne’s been making since 1986’s Lives in the Balance – he offers a few pointed observations on interpersonal relationships, beats the left-wing drum a few times, maybe drops a few brilliant lines here and there, and that’s that. He’s been around long enough that his new albums are always compared – inevitably unfavorably – to his classic work, but those comparisons are meaningless wishful thinking; Browne’s lyrics no longer cut to the heart of the human condition as easily as they once did, and one gets the impression he’s just fine with that. After all, being a poet is sort of a pain in the ass – it’s much more fun just to be a guy in a band.

Browne’s been angling for guy-in-a-bandhood since 1993’s I’m Alive, and after 1996’s thuddingly dull Looking East and the fair-to-middling The Naked Ride Home, his new set actually represents something of a return to form. Some songs drift along on the same shapeless grooves that have bogged down a lot of his recent stuff, but a handful of the tracks are among his recent best, and he gets off a few good lines, too – starting with the opener and title track, in which he proclaims “Time may heal all wounds / But time will steal you blind / Time the wheel, time the conqueror.” The next cut, “Off of Wonderland,” offers some beautifully clear-eyed self-analysis of the Boomers, and fond reminiscence of a time when he was “Living with an unknown band / Ankle-deep in contraband / Working on a life unplanned.”

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Jackson Browne record without a few political groaners; here, the “winner” is probably “The Drums of War,” which wants to be a scathing polemic against the Bush Administration, but just finds Browne sounding like an art teacher who’s downed too many bottles of homemade hooch. He wonders, among other things, “Why is impeachment off the table? / We’d better stop them while we are able,” but what you’ll really want to know is what happened to the guy who knew how to merge his politics with savvy songwriting.

Still, between the prerequisite Katrina track (“Where Were You?”) and a bit of tongue-in-cheek silliness (“Going Down to Cuba”), Browne does manage to offer some trenchant observations on life and love, and the whole thing goes down about as easy as you’d expect from an artist who turned three chords and a heaping pile of ennui into the very definition of the singer/songwriter genre. He may not ride the zeitgeist the way he did 30 years ago – and his new songs may derive satisfaction mainly from the way they evoke memories of his old ones – but give Jackson Browne credit for keeping his muse alive, and doing it on his own terms. Time hasn’t conquered him yet.

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